July 17, 2002 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 103

Iranian Reformists and Judiciary Skirmish Over Press Ban on Iran-U.S. Dialogue

July 17, 2002 | By A. Savyon*
Iran | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 103

The struggle in Iran between the reformists (members of the Majlis and journalists) and conservatives who dominate the centers of power (primarily the Judiciary and the Guardian Council) is focused on fundamental human rights issues.[1]

The Majlis, which for the first time has a reformist majority, is trying to push forward political-economic legislation and initiatives that promote a more pro-U.S. foreign policy. However, these moves are being blocked by the Guardian Council.[2]

Every few months, the ideological tension between the Majlis and the Judiciary reaches the boiling point. Recently, it was over the question of promoting Iran-U.S. relations.[3]

The Public Debate on Iran-U.S. Dialogue
For weeks, the Majlis and the local press focused on the secret Iran-U.S. talks.[4] When Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei ruled that talks with "the Great Satan" were "comparable to treason," the Tehran Justice Department rushed to announce that it had decided to try journalists who promoted dialogue with the U.S., claiming that it is based both on Khamenei's directive and on Iran's Press Law.[5] The reformists protested. President Khatami did not side with them. He did call for protecting the Majlis and individual freedoms but at the same time also called for the protection of "the regime's apparatuses," who attacked the reformist Majlis.

Opposition to Tehran Justice Department's Decision

I: An Unconstitutional Move
Majlis member and National Security and Foreign Policy Committee rapporteur Elaheh Koulaie called the justice department's decision "shocking" and "unconstitutional," since no entity may encroach on the legislative branch's rights by setting laws and regulations of its own as the Tehran Justice Department did, "not even in the name of protecting the independence and territorial integrity of the country."[6]

Chairman of the Majlis Committee for Legal Matters Nasser Qavami also called the Justice Department's decision "unconstitutional," since promoting dialogue with the U.S. is not a crime.[7]

II. An Illegal Move
Muhammad Reza Khatami, deputy Majlis chairman and brother of President Khatami, stated that the decision was "illegal and illegitimate," warning that expression of opinions could not be stopped by force.[8] Majlis Judicial Committee rapporteur, Muhammad Kazemi, stated that the Press Law does not deem relations with a foreign country to be a crime.[9]

III. A Move Against Freedom of Expression and Freedom of Press
Many reactions to the Tehran Justice Department's decision were based on the claim that it ran counter to the most basic freedoms of expression and opinion. Culture and Islamic Guidance Minister Ahmad Masjed Jameie warned against treading on the red lines of the freedoms of expression and the press: "… Press activities are beyond the authority of provincial organizations [such as the Tehran Justice Department]."[10]

In this context, Majlis Judicial Committee rapporteur Muhammad Kazemi discussed both freedom of the press and legislators' rights: "It is not possible to threaten the newspapers of this country. According to the Press Law, the press is free to publish its articles… legislators have immunity and responsibility to discuss all matters, both domestic and foreign."[11]

In an article titled "What is the Red Line?" Nourouz columnist Hussein Bastani ridiculed the conservatives who banned discussion of Iran-U.S. relations but had once been involved in the 1987 Iran-Contra scandal with the United States. He wrote: "We know of only [one] instance in the past 15 years exposed by the press in which secret talks were held between Americans and Iranians [but those Iranians belonged to the conservatives…]. We do not know why the Tehran justice department's attorney general engages in restricting reports about talks with the U.S. instead of investigating whether they were actually conducted recently."[12]

IV. A Move Harming Islamic Principles
Majlis member Koulaie added, "It is a pity that Tehran's Justice Department is distancing itself from religious teachings... How is it that a small section of the judiciary can deprive Muslims of advice from other devout Muslims?"[13]

V. A Move Harming the Principle of Separation of Powers
Some were enraged that the conservatives prevented the reformist Majlis from discussing issues in its area of jurisdiction – such as Iran-U.S. relations – and tried to limit the Majlis's area of influence in public matters. Minister Masjid Jameie stated that Tehran's Justice Department was also encroaching upon the government's authority using as a pretext Khamenei's declaration of policy. He said that holding talks with the U.S. is exclusively within the jurisdiction of the government and the Supreme National Security Council.[14]

Also, Muhammad Reza Khatami [the President's brother], insisted that discussing Iranian foreign policy is within the Majlis's jurisdiction, as well as its duty. "The Majlis," he warned, "will continue its debate on the matter… The Tehran Justice Department's move will not stop the Majlis from being involved in this issue."[15]

President Khatami's Reaction
Iranian president Muhammad Khatami, who was recently forced to apologize to his supporters (primarily students) for failing to live up to his promises of political and social reform, only addressed the issues of the power struggles between the reformists and the judicial system days after the Majlis members and the reformist journalists set the tone. As always, he spoke out only after Supreme Leader Khomenei stated that the status of the Majlis must not be harmed.

The Status of the Majlis
In his speech before the Majlis, Khatami protested the Judiciary's supremacy over the Majlis and attacked the Judiciary's attempts to restrict the Majlis's activities. He emphasized the Majlis's legislative authority and its supervisory authority over other government bodies: "Despite the independence of the Judiciary, the Majlis must be fully aware of how people are treated by the Judiciary just as it has to be fully aware of other ministries' performance."[16]

Khatami complained about the devaluation of the Majlis's status, particularly in its present session, and railed against the conservatives' disrespect towards Majlis members: "How come insulting the parliament has become as good as gold, but insulting certain other circles [i.e. the conservatives] is regarded as [damaging] the system?" He also complained about his own weakness, being responsible for supervising the proper implementation of the constitution, yet having no power to punish those who violate the constitution.

Khatami is a faithful son of the Islamic Revolution who supports the country's Islamic regime and does not wish to be seen by the conservatives as seeking to create a new order based solely on democracy. Walking a tightrope between reformists and conservatives, Khatami proposed that a committee be established to examine the recent tension between the Majlis and the Judiciary, suggesting that the committee would have the authority to punish - "indiscriminately" – both those harming the reformist Majlis, and those harming the Guardian Council and the Judiciary.[17]

The Status of the Press
Khatami also spoke of newspapers being shut down and of journalists being prosecuted by the Judiciary.[18] The journalists' crimes, said Khatami, must be heard "before special courts with special juries, since one side of such quarrels is a strong political system [referring to the Judiciary] while the other side is a weak individual… Such a jury must represent the conscience of the larger society; otherwise, the constitution is obviously violated." Khatami added that no newspaper should be tried in the absence of such a jury and stated that any verdict handed out without such a jury would be invalid. He asked: "Which inflicts heavier damage to Islam – an article with limited readership, or the misadministration of a political system [i.e. the Judiciary's measures]? The latter, I am certain, [inflicts heavier damage] since it can make the youth hate the entire religion."[19]

The articles in the press regarding U.S.-Iranian dialogue have abated. It happened not only because of the restrictions on reporting it by Tehran's Justice Department, but also because the political system became occupied with other political storms. Such a storm was the call issued by an Iranian liberal intellectual, Dr. Hashem Aghajeri's to reform the Shi'a so as to separate religion from state and to limit the clerics powers to run the government. Another such storm was Ayatollah Jalal Al-Din Taheri's resignation loudly criticizing the regime's corruption and hypocrisy.

*Ayelet Savyon is Director of the Iranian Media Project.

[1] Such as freedom of the press, freedom to criticize the regime, and the struggle for genuine separation of authorities, as is accepted in democratic governments. During the past two years, the conservative-controlled court system has shut down some 80 newspapers, and imprisoned or placed under investigation dozens of journalists. Recently measures were taken against journalist Ahmad Zeidabadi whose "social rights" were revoked. The trials of Mohsen Mirdamadi, Majlis member and editor of the reformist paper Nourouz, and senior Majlis members are now underway; and the prominent reformist paper Bonyan was closed by court order.

[2] For example, promoting the Press Law – establishing the status of the journalist and freedom of expression; the Election Law – establishing the involvement of conservative supervisory bodies in the election process and, in effect, reducing their involvement and authority in approving the candidacy of reformists; and economic laws aimed at encouraging capital investment in Iran.

[3] Another notable Judiciary attempt to hobble the Majlis was in December 2001, when Majlis member Hussein Loqmanian was jailed for three weeks for criticizing conservative institutions during a Majlis debate. The incident, the first of its kind, sparked a major rupture between the reformist Majlis and the conservative Judiciary, which was resolved only by intervention of Supreme Leader Khamenei who ordered Loqmanian's immediate release. Other Majlis members are also facing prison sentences, but in the meantime they remain free so as to avoid exacerbating the situation.

[4] Mohsen Mirdamadi, who also heads the Majlis National Security and Foreign Policy Committee which discussed the advantages of Iran-U.S. talks, insisted in committee hearings that such talks had indeed been conducted in Cyprus in recent weeks by foreign ministry personnel and with the approval of Supreme Leader Khamenei himself. The Iranian foreign ministry emphatically denied that the talks had taken place (IRNA, May 6, 2002; May 11, 2002). Mirdamadi himself said: "We must direct our policy [towards the U.S.] in accordance with the needs of the time… In the past, hostility to the U.S. suited our interests, but this is not the case today… Our interests today lie in openness towards the U.S." (Al-Ayyam, Palestinian Authority, May 9, 2002).

[5] Khamenei's speech, IRNA, May 22, 2002. Tehran Judicial Department communiqué, IRNA May 25, 2002.

[6] Iran Daily, May 27, 2002.

[7] Nourouz, May 27, 2002.

[8] Nourouz, May 27, 2002.

[9] Iran (Farsi), May 27, 2002.

[10] Nourouz, May 27, 2002, IRNA, May 27, 2002.

[11] Iran (Farsi), May 27, 2002.

[12] Nourouz, May 27, 2002

[13] Iran Daily, May 27, 2002.

[14] Nourouz, May 27, 2002; IRNA, May 27, 2002.

[15] Nourouz, May 5, 2002.

[16] IRNA, May 28-29, 2002; Nourouz, May 29, 2002.

[17] IRNA, May 28-29, 2002; Nourouz, May 29, 2002.

[18] Iran has separate courts for press affairs.

[19] IRNA, May 28-29, 2002; Nourouz, May 29, 2002.

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